When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphany's since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.
What have been your musical epiphany moments?
Good morning and Happy Sunday. Great question...you and I might be long-lost siblings!
My big brother Matt is about 3 years older than me, so he and the neighborhood stonies got into music when I was about 8. Until then, it was a steady diet of Stones/Beatles/Jazz from my dad and some BeeGees/Abba/Gordon Lightfoot from my mom. Thanks, Dad...you saved me.
But Matt brought home some music that I had heard a bit on the local Seattle rock station, 99.9 KISW. That station was our savior. I was starting to hear more Maiden and Zeppelin and the like, and I was like, "Hmmmmmm...those guitars are like dunking on everyone." Lots of basketball references for me, by the way, especially as a kid.
The big moment, though, was when Matt gave me Exit...Stage Left by Rush for Christmas in 1981. I put on the longest song first. "Xanadu" is like 12 minutes, so I just dropped the vinyl on my parents' old Fisher turntable, and HOLY FUCK! Couldn't believe it...that it was 3 guys, talking about mystic lands and playing shit that I couldn't even comprehend. Flipped to side 2 as I ate Christmas candy (so visceral...little chocolate Santas that I had to peel wrappers off...remember like it was yesterday), and I heard "Tom Sawyer," "Freewill," and then "La Villa Strangiato". That was it...I was DONE. Still feel that way almost 40 years later.
Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?
Definitely the riff first. I find a riff I like, oftentimes born out of an exercise that I have created, and then I drill the fuck out of it. Sometimes literally 1,000 times. This pays off later when I bring in the metronome, or the Great Equalizer, as I call it. Also helps down the line when I have to sing and play a complicated riff. Repetition...kill and drill. Old school fucking woodshedding, man.
Once I have a few riffs that make sense together, it's then a process of fitting them, working on transitions, trying different time signatures and tempos. Little King songs are hard to play, sometimes, because I get bored easily. We are working on a new record called Amuse De Q right now, and there is not one traditional song structure on the whole album, really. This is by design...I figure if my brain isn't bored while writing, neither will the audience.
As I have the songs about 90% written, I then bring them to the bass player. For the last 2 albums (almost), that person is Manny Tejeda, my brother from another in Delaware. He is so creative and musical, and he's Dominican, so he brings some cool flavor to Little King. I show him the songs, and we jam together as he writes his parts. From there, I can get a better sense of what is working, and I make edits with him. Less of this, more of that, solo goes here, change the tempo there, big rest here...you get the idea.
When Manny and I agree that our parts are nailed, we bring out the metronome and play to the click over and over again. This makes the studio process so much easier...and keeps our drummer/engineer (Eddy Garcia) from going crazy. It's SO important, young bands out there...use that fucking click. That separates the pros from the amateurs, in my book.
Finally, when the songs are ready, we travel to El Paso and record with Ed. He writes his parts quickly, and that adds some spontaneity and crazy chops to our well-rehearsed songs. When he's done, Manny and I track next. That's actually where we are right now with Amuse. Bass, Drums, and all Rhythm Guitars are done...just have to do my solos and some string and one piano arrangement, and the music will be done.
That is a very intense process for me. I purge the demons! Seriously, I am a trained writer with a degree in Creative Writing...I edit the fuck out of them. That's a huge part of my legacy on earth, so I make sure the words are meticulously crafted. Avoid cliches, find descriptive synonyms, cool rhymes, and make sure that every line serves the theme and ethos of the song, and to a larger degree, the album itself.
Let's just say that a Little King album is well-thought out. It may not be perfect, and it may not be someone's cup of tea, but there are no shortcuts and we bust our asses to make it as good as it can be. I am grateful to have the support of Manny and Eddy as I open up my brain to them, and ultimately, to the world.
Who has influenced you the most?
Easy answer is always gonna be Neil Peart. Musically, philosophically, and just his aura of mastery and deeper thought. His work ethic. His sense of humility. I have waxed poetic about him a lot, and I miss the fact that he's gone and lament that I never got to meet him in person. I did make an album called Virus Divine (2004) with Rush's old producer, Terry Brown. That's as close as I ever got to that camp, and knowing how Neil was, he hated adulation and fanboi shit. So even if I'd met him, it would have been a brief "Hello and thank you" and I would have been on my way.
Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?
The muse hits at odd times, but for me, I truly have to discipline myself to sit down and write. There's very little 3am inspiration. It happens, and I dream music all the time, but it usually goes back into the ether.
My life is busy. I am a single dad, I run a business, I run the business of Little King, and I just always have a lot on my plate. I like it that way, but it means I really have to compartmentalize my thoughts and my energy. Works for me now, as I feel pretty productive.
Having said that, when the pandemic hit, inspiration was EVERYWHERE. We had such success with our last album, Occam's Foil (2019), that we were very excited to capitalize on that with some great festival dates and club shows in 2020. Then POOF...gone.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, though, we decided to make a record. The themes of Amuse De Q reflect what we have all lived through in the last 6 months - Isolation, Relationship Hell, Economic Collapse, Sobriety (at least for me), Domestic Abuse (I hear this over and over again from my female friends), Politics and Social Media and the Orange Menace, and so much more. The Q is for "Quarantine," of course. But I was Amused by it and inside of it, and those are the topics for the new songs. Also, A Muse...Melpomene is the Muse of Tragedy and Chorus. She makes a couple appearances on the new album...fickle biatch that she is!
We're all a product of our environment. Tell us about the band's hometown and how that reflects in the music?
Great question, and thanks for asking it!
I grew up in Seattle, and that is the home of Hendrix, Heart, and Queensryche. Oh, and I guess a few other bands, too! PJ, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice, on and on. That was fertile ground for me as a kid, but I left in 1990 and only lived up there for a couple years after that. But having been there from 1976-90, Seattle is home.
I moved to El Paso, TX, in 1992. My first wife was from there, and I followed her down the road from college in Tucson to be with her. I was fucking SO young and impetuous. Maybe Stupid, even. In retrospect, though, El Paso is my adopted hometown. I have made (soon-to-be) 7 records there, was married there twice, had two kids there, and graduated from college there as well (UTEP Miners, baby!) It's an odd place to live when you're not from there, but I love it and it's in my soul.
El Paso is a completely unique city in the world, much less the USA. I believe it was or is the largest border community IN THE WORLD with Ciudad Juarez on the other side as a city of millions. That flavor gives El Paso a crazy cool vibe. Musically, culturally, and economically. El Pasoans are loyal as fuck, scrappy, and drink harder than any city I've ever been to. And I've been everywhere in this country. El Paso may not be the most aesthetically pleasing place, but it has mojo to spare. I love it, and my best friends in the world are still there and in Seattle. Don't fuck with El Paso, yo. It's not to be trifled with.
So, that unique caldron of influences makes for a unique music scene! Some of the best musicians in the world live and play in local bars, and I challenge you to come there and not find a great band. They fight amongst themselves, sometimes dream too small, and there isn't a lot of money to go around. But I can list 20 people there easily who could shine in any city in the world's music scene. Orale!
Where'd the band name come from?
The name "Ryan" means Little King in Gaelic. I started it in 1996 as a vehicle to write songs and play with my friends...that still is the plan today, and I am so lucky to have such talented friends who humor me.
Also...don't let the Little King do the thinking for the Big King.
You have one chance, what movie are you going to write the soundtrack for?
I'd love to tackle The Shining. It's among my favorite movies, and I grew up waiting for the next Stephen King book like I did the next Rush album. And Jack is just a fucking FORCE in that movie. Same with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest, by Ken Kesey. I would have loved to do that one.
If there are future projects about being a twice-divorced single dad half Jewish basketball playing guitar soloing bald hip hop hippie liberal team building womanizing vegetarian now-sober former whisky guzzling Raiders fanatic, I'd be qualified as well.
You now write for a music publication (The Ripple Effect?). You're going to write a 1,000 word essay on one song. Which would it be and why?
I'm gonna stay away from Rush, m'kay? And don't threaten me with another writing project, please!
I would probably go with Nothing But Flowers by the Talking Heads. It appears on their last album, Naked, which is really the transition from the Heads into solo David Byrne. It has a world music vibe, is so intricate and recorded so beautifully, and the lyrics are everything I aspire to - funny, poignant, rich with imagery and metaphors, and a political statement that isn't overwrought. He's brilliant, that song is brilliant, and the idea of "dreaming of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies" in a world where edibles are now king...
Come on, share with us a couple of your great, Spinal Tap, rock and roll moments?
I knocked over Stonehenge. It was me. My bad. Oh wait...that was Chevy Chase. Nevermind.
I fucking pulled out my guitar cord 3x during a big show once. I was shitfaced. My bad. But I went wireless after that and never looked back. And I never drank before a show again, either. Little King songs are hard enough to play and sing...doing it drunk or high is like walking a tightrope without a rope or net. No one should have to be subjected to THAT.
Tell us about playing live and the live experience for you and for your fans?
I'll let you know! Give me another year. Or 2. That's a terrible thought, no?
It's been a minute. We haven't really toured properly in years, and that's because of my complicated life. Kids and the like...careers...I haven't been able to properly represent really the last 3 albums. But that will change with the release of Amuse De Q.
I'm a big believer in an album or a show as a journey. It's like a play or a movie...it should have a beginning, middle, and end. I know, I know...don't overthink it, right? Nah...fuck that. I am what I am.
Dynamics are important to that journey. It starts with crafting a setlist that is thoughtful and diverse. I now have 7 releases to choose from, and while the tendency is to go heavy on the new material, that's an easy way out. I have to listen back every time we prepare a live show and find old songs that still resonate with me as a singer and lyricist, that are fun to play, that fit with an overall theme, and that I can competently sing and play at the same time. So, the show is about 90 seconds long! Kidding...
What makes a great song?
It sets a mood and then brings it home. There is no ONE thing, but lyrics and music should fit nicely, it should be memorable, and it should have lasting power. Quality is timeless...listen to Vivaldi or Mozart or the Beatles. Four Seasons is what, 400 years old? And my son loves it. That qualifies.
Tell us about the first song you ever wrote?
"Drop The Dime" from my first album in 1997 called Transmountain, I think. It was cute...about driving up a mountain as a metaphor for a relationship and taking drugs. Soooo clever. I listen to it now and can't believe it was recorded so poorly, and executed almost as badly. What the actual Fuck? I mean, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It has heart, though.
Transmountain is a highway that divides Northeast and West El Paso. I used to spend a lot of time up there looking over the city and writing lyrics. At age 24, it was my refuge from school and poverty and a longing to be back in Seattle amongst friends and family. It also gave me a place to contemplate my marriage and ask what the fuck I was actually DOING.
"Flying up the mountainside
Rising slowly through the desert sky
Headlong into the unseen
Nothing here is ever as it seems
What piece of your music are particularly proud of?
Please go check out "Happy Home" from 2014, "The Skin That I'm In" from 2019, and "Collateral Damage" from 2008. I don't wanna speak on why I love them, still. That's not me, to wax on about how great one of my songs is. But they all still move me and are still very relevant when I hear them. They are most of what a proper and good Little King song should be.
The new album has a ton of things that I am particularly fond of, at this point. Lyrics are done and vocals are not, so we shall see. But there is a song called "How Could You?" that deals with domestic violence, and it's destined to make some inroads and some new fans, I think. I'm sure, really. It is working on every level.
Who today, writes great songs? Who just kicks your ass? Why?
I'm buried in my own head, man. I haven't come out since April. I can't really speak on current music now because I don't allow myself the luxury of listening to others while I am writing. I don't wanna vamp someone else...that's what happens when I listen to new music when I'm making a record. It's not fair and not what I want. So, I judiciously avoid it until I'm mixing. I don't mind copping mixing ideas and mastering levels. This album, especially. The record will be good enough to take us places that Little King hasn't been before, so every detail will be visited in the context of current music.
Having said all of that, I love Tool, Tame Impala, Beck, Pissing Razors, Ministry, The March Divide, and a few more.
Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?
Always Vinyl, if possible. I grew up in the 70's! The compression used for modern digital music on iTunes etc is just brutal. It CRUSHES MY DREAMS! Even though my new Airpods are phenomenal, there's still an unforgivable level of compression and dullness on an Mp3. Gross, really.
Give me analog! I can't even begin to describe to the youngsters what it was like to ONLY be able to buy vinyl when your favorite band released a record. The artwork was huge and proper; we would pore over the liner notes and lyrics for months. And the fidelity and relatively mellow mastering levels of those records, well...put on a good pair of cans and listen to Moving Pictures or Darkside of the Moon and then get back to me.
Whiskey or beer? And defend your choice
10 months sober, ese. Zero.
But yeah...both. For too long. I don't miss it. I got a DUI last year and I still can't drive. That's given me some serious psychological Antabuse. The thought of it reviles me. But ask anyone who has partied with me...I've had my share.
We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. What's your home town, and when we get there, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?
Tucson is my current home. There is a music store on 4th Ave. near the University of Arizona called Hurricanes. It's owned by a guy named Rich Hopkins, and he is also a LEGEND in the southwest music scene with his bands the Sand Rubies and the Luminarios. And one of the world's nicest guys. 5 Stars, man.
Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders
Please visit us at www.littlekingtunes.com or on FB and IG @littlekingtunes. I think you might be surprised that you've never heard us, or if you already have, that's a great place to keep up with your progress on the new album and stream or download all the older stuff. Take the trip. Read the words. Love you for it!
Don't despair, y'all. Live music will be back with a vengeance, and the flood of shows coming soon will like nothing anyone has ever seen. Literally. Every one of us is aching to hit the stage, and the appreciation for the live show and the camaraderie that will be felt amongst band and audience will pervade every aspect of our business for a long time. Through the storm we come out stronger.